Cyber con artists are exploiting the growing use of Internet matchmaking to extract money from victims under the pretence of romance.
Today, AASMA DAY looks at the massive growth of Romance Fraud.
Internet dating and finding love through social networking sites is booming - but this popular and modern method of finding a partner is being exploited by criminals looking to con people out of their money.
For victims, the cost is emotional as well as financial as they feel devastated after forming a bond with someone they believed had genuine feelings for them.
Romance Fraud has risen by more than a fifth last year to 3,100 cases with victims losing an average of £11,000, latest figures reveal.
But reported cases are only the tip of the iceberg as experts say many more go unreported.
Det Ch Insp Andrew Fyfe, head of crime at the National Fraud Intelligence Bureau, says: “Over the last few years, the online dating industry has become less of a taboo subject.
“Before, people would not admit they had met someone online.
“But now people have busier lives, it has become the norm.
“People taken in by romance fraud are usually the most vulnerable and badly affected victims of fraud.
“Many of these people are lonely and desperate for romance and companionship, only to find themselves completely fleeced.
“Not only can they have lost thousands of pounds, they are totally devastated by the complete breakdown of trust.
“Some of them are strung along and wooed for a year or more by someone who is effectively grooming them.
“Dating fraud is about pulling on the emotional heartstrings.
“It does not matter what profession you are in or what stage of life you are at, you can become a victim of dating fraud. The victim can be at a vulnerable stage of their life and may have recently been through a divorce or been widowed or just not had a serious relationship before.”
Det Ch Insp Fyfe says while fraudsters will often meet their targets on an online dating forum, they will soon take take communications to a more private forum.
He explains: “They move away from the dating website quite quickly as they want to start communicating in a more personal way such as text messages, WhatsApp, Facebook and e-mails.
“That’s when the fraudster really starts and it opens up different levels of fraud.”
Det Ch Insp Fyfe says the offender communicates with their victim on a daily basis and waits until they develop strong feelings for them before asking for money.
Men and women are just as likely to become victims of romance fraud, but Action Fraud receives more reports from women and Det Ch Insp Fyfe believes “men are more reluctant to report because of pride.’
Female victims are usually contacted by a man who says he is divorced or widowed and is working abroad.
Det Ch Insp Fyfe says: “They deliberately say they are not in this country as that avoids questions about meeting up.
“With male victims, it is slightly different. The female suspects usually say they are younger and are abroad on business. They then say they have an issue with customs or have an accident or a sick child who they have to pay medical fees for.
“We often find organised crime groups are organising this type of fraud and that’s how they can manage this level of communication.”
Det Ch Insp Fyfe says the amount victims lose depends on how long the fraud carries on for and can range from a few hundred pounds to several hundreds of thousands of pounds.
David paid out £7,000 to woman living in Spain before he twigged he’d been scammed’
When David found himself single at the age of 50 after the breakdown of his marriage, he turned to online dating.
At first David, who lives in Lancashire, dated some UK women, but after no success, he met a woman who looked beautiful in her profile picture who told him she was living in Spain.
Det Cons Mark Aldridge says: “He got chatting to this lass regularly and after about two or three months, she said she wanted to meet him but couldn’t pay for a ticket.
“When he offered to pay for her ticket, she told him he couldn’t buy a ticket for her because of all the terrorism threats and to send her the money to buy her own. She then came up with all sorts of excuses for why she couldn’t come and told him she needed money to pay off her debts, then a new passport and then travel insurance.
“David paid around £7,000 but then actually twigged himself and realised he had been scammed.
“He reported it to us but unfortunately, the money could not be followed.”
David soon found himself targeted by other scammers and approached to invest in gold, oil and investment schemes.
Det Cons Aldridge explains: “Once these fraudsters know someone is willing to pay, they target them in other ways.
“He had ended up on some ‘suckers list’ and targeted in different ways to part with his cash.
“We were able to warn him about the different ways he would be approached in scams.
“Luckily, this man realised himself the relationship was all an illusion.
“The hardest thing for us as policemen is to convince people they are not in a relationship or are in an emotionally and financially abusive relationship.”
• Names have been changed
‘Fraudsters wait until they have really reeled in their victim before asking for money’
The perpetrators of romance fraud are either like vultures or fishermen says Det Cons Mark Aldridge, fraud and liaison officer who works in the economic crime unit at Lancashire Police,
He says: “Fraudsters work like vultures or fishermen. They either sit there looking around like vultures and wait until they see a victim.
“Or they lob something out there like bait and wait and see who bites like fishermen do.
“With Romance Fraud, just by registering on dating websites and putting your profile out there, you are declaring your vulnerabilities.
“Unfortunately, there are people who don’t use these sites to form relationships but as sources of information to find victims.
“It is surprising how intense some of these relationships become for the victims even though they have never met the person.
“If you are unhappy and someone is offering you an escape from loneliness, it is something people will engage in.
“Investing emotions and feelings is more powerful than investing money.
“Once people have invested in a relationship, it becomes a difficult thing to break as no one likes getting their heart or their trust broken.
“With romance fraud, there will always be some crisis - whether it is a car crash or the person getting beaten up and having all their credit cards stolen or unexpected taxes.
“It is all using psychology to get under a person’s skin. It is like a different version of child grooming.
“It is all about taking your money off you and for these fraudsters, it is never a relationship.”
Det Cons Aldridge says romance fraud culprits often feed off what their victims tell them and regurgitate their own tale.
He explains: “They feed off what they hear from the victims like leeches. Quite often, the offender gives an almost exact reiteration of the victim’s case.
“The psychology is to show they are kindred spirits and have such a lot in common.
“The offender takes in triggers from their discussion and make notes and researches it to make it look like they have the same interests.
“As a result, the victim believes this person is their perfect match.
“These scammers are in it for the long gain and know it is not a quick hit. They know they have to develop the online relationship over a period of time before they hit payday.
“These fraudsters wait until they have really reeled their victim in before asking for money.
“There is a common trait with this type of scam - once you have paid out, there will always be a need for more money.
“They will keep taking money off victims until they either have no money left or have sussed them out.”
While some romance fraud culprits can be from this country, Det Cons Aldridge says many are from abroad. “Often the fraudster is from abroad and it is virtually impossible to track them down.
“They do not care about the psychological damage they cause to their victims - it is all about boosting their own bank account.
“Romance scams are far more personal than other kinds of fraud. Once victims realise they have been duped, their embarrassment is so much higher.
“Many tend not to report it as they don’t want people to know.”
A con that frequently flies under the radar
Like domestic violence, Romance Fraud is much bigger problem than people realise, but it goes under the radar as people are reluctant to talk about it says Dr Tim Owen, director of the University of Central Lancashire’s Cybercrime Research Unit.
He says: “Romance fraud is far bigger than people think - but like domestic violence, we only ever see the tip of the iceberg because of the social embarrassment factor.
“The taboo of online relationships has gone, but there are not many people willing to confess to being duped in such a way.
“They thought they were in a meaningful relationship and when they discover it was all hollow, they feel foolish and don’t want to tell anyone.
“There are an increasing number of singletons unwittingly admitting their vulnerabilities on dating sites.
“Predators are targeting people on dating websites and looking for the lonely.
“With people having a far more home based lifestyle, it is easier for victims to go under the radar. People can even disappear as the likes of serial killers can operate more effectively.”
People wrongly assume professional and well educated people won’t fall victim to romance scams.
However, Prof Awais Rashid, Lancaster University’s top academic on cyber security and co-director of the Security Lancaster Institute, says in many cases, these are exactly the kind of people fraudsters are targeting.
He explains: “People sometimes think it is not the professional and highly educated people who fall for these scams.
“But in a large number of cases, these are exactly the people who are targeted.
“Ultimately, the goal is to extract money and successful, professional people are more likely to have money.
“They are also more likely to have busy lives so don’t have time to go out and date.
“There is no evidence that socio economic background plays a part in someone being a victim of romance fraud.
“Research shows it is more their romantic ideology that makes people susceptible.
“Many people have an idealised idea of romance and think there is only one person out there for them.
“In some cases, victims become so attached to their scammers, that despite being shown all the evidence, they refuse to believe they are being exploited for financial gain.”